It happens to the best of genres and titles.
The tipping point where popularity peaks and then wanes. In this generation alone, we’ve seen at least two cases of this: music games like Rock Band killing themselves off and Halo giving way to Call of Duty. Both cases are unique in their own way, but both span from the same central issue: over-saturation. Whether it’s of a unique IP or even a setting via World War II, too much of a good thing is the best way to make the very same thing not-so-good.
Why does this occur? The reason something becomes popular in the first place is a combination of originality, polish, and fun. These same constraints are why a game or game-type loses its sheen: any concept done over and over again loses all 3; something is only original for the first few installments, polish fades after it becomes a standard, and fun–the fleeting essence of gaming–is always in high demand but short supply.
In some ways, the great monetary and temporal cost of developing a large-scale game lends a hand in the eventual stagnation of a new idea or setting. Fiscally, there is far greater reason in making a follow-up title to an already-successful game than trying to come up with new ideas that may flop even if well-executed. Letting finance dictate everything proves unwise, however, as soon these follow-up titles dwindle in popularity and sales as well. It’s good in ways; having a demand for new things ensures that video games will never become as hackneyed as the annual summer blockbuster or New York Times best-seller. Indeed, it seems that corporate money-mindedness and consumption of the next big thing are symbiotic in making sure that games will only live as long as people buy them.
Some key titles avoid the curse of over-saturation, though. Legend of Zelda’s been around for a while, Madden too. These types of games come in annual installments, sometimes sooner, but never enough to be considered a cash-in on a popular idea like the bum-rush to music titles after the success of Guitar Hero. They also change substantially, and improve on previous mechanics or add new ones. The key to staving off the death of a title is constantly adding new things. The only catch is that these titles are never the dominant standard of video gaming, and instead occupy a needed place as a consistent title immune the rise and fall of popular games. In that way, it’s a trade-off balancing frequency of a title with innovation.
Indie games are a cause for hope, as they don’t require nearly as much investment to be popular or good and span all of the genres and sub-genres that heavy-weight companies don’t bother with. On the flip side, casual marketing of games causes 17 versions of Tetris, Sudoku, and Scrabble to be present in an effort to grab those precious pennies. This isn’t so much a problem with rehashing as it is having too many spots competing for the same thing.
A unique component, however, is that games remain even after present development ceases. Going back to play the old PS2 Medal of Honor games is unique. It reminds you why the game spawned so many imitators, because it was intense. Well, for its time, at least. Perhaps the only upside of having spurts of innovation followed by long periods of reinvention is that the games will remain crystallized in their time for future generations to explore, both to use as a comparison point with how far gaming has progressed (or simply changed) as well as for revisiting the old gems.
The modern factor that has played perhaps the largest influence on longevity of a game’s reign on the market is multiplayer, to the point where it’s the only thing in the game (or it might as well be). The point at which Call of Duty 4 truly usurped Halo 3 was the day that its multiplayer numbers exceeded that of Halo, hitherto the biggest online game for the 360.
Having a stranglehold on the market may benefit one company greatly, but it does rob a lot of other communities of players. And because these monopolies tend to be temporary, it serves better towards ushering in change once something else big rolls around. It does cheapen the experience, though, knowing that a community will only last as long as the average attention span does.
So we have the First-Person Shooter as the current staple of popular consumption, but because of the nature of video games as a whole, something new and innovative will come about sooner rather than later and replace it. In all probability, the FPS will kill itself off over time (or at least shoot itself in the foot) and will simply be aided in exiting the spotlight by a fresh candidate. Let’s just hope it’s not the third-person shooter.